Enough what, more how
I still haven’t read the Martin Scorsese piece in the new Harpers, but this excerpt from it caught my eye:
As recently as 15 years ago, the term ‘content’ was heard only when people were discussing the cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted with and measured against ‘form,’ Then, gradually, it was used more and more by the people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should. ‘Content’ became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores.
Sometimes, as a kind of joke with myself, I recite part of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” Marlon Brando says part of it in Apocalypse Now and it’s kind of campy in its high gloom. (This is the “the world ends not with a bang, but with a whimper” poem.) When I see something about the modern world that’s both ridiculous and depressing, I’ll say to myself, in a sententious tone, “We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men.” Another part I’ll sometimes repeat is, “Shape without form, shade without colour…” I think maybe it should be instead, “Content without form.” I keep coming back to this idea that we’ve focused too much on content and totally neglected form. I suspect that a lot of the things we find alienating and distressing about life today have to do with this lack of form.
Granted, this formulation is pretty abstract. It’s not really possible for something to be without form. But things can have unpleasing or clumsy or confounding forms, because they are carelessly put together. Every cultural observation is about “content”—”what is this movie saying, what is this celebrity saying, what does this mean? does this really mean that?” The focus is never on how anything is constructed. The same thing happens with arguments and debates. We celebrate or denigrate things for what they say, but tend to ignore if they said it badly. An author makes a few of the points we like to see made, so we quote them approvingly. We don’t focus on the structure of the argument: if it’s elegantly put together or even coherent. Recently there was a big hullaballoo about some blogger over his content: “What were they really saying? Was it scandalous? Was it benign?” No one bothered to ask, “Is this good writing? Is it even worth reading?”
The lack of attention to form means the same arguments keep reoccurring, because no one can even recognize when they have shifted or become incoherent or self-contradictory. If we paid attention to things on the level of form, to the shape of things, I think we’d quickly find that opposing culture warriors make the same sorts of claims, just substitute their favored subjects as the heroes or villains of the stories. They are writing a genre that we could recognize and describe if we learned to treat things as such.
Commerce is probably the biggest reason things are leveled out into “content”, a single, formless abstract term that recognizes no difference of medium or genre. As Scorsese suggests, it’s a unit of accounting: the “output” of the media company, their widgets. It’s also the result of the Internet as paradigm: the Internet has no beginning, middle, or end. And neither does anything else now: movie series and franchises just expand endlessly with prequels and sequels and spin-offs, the classical symmetry of the trilogy is unthinkable today.
The online public is also formless: it’s just an amorphous churn of emoting and reacting to things. This is what I was trying to express in my post on public apologies. An apology, which rests on symmetry, ends something and starts anew. That can’t happen now: someone is always there to say, “It’s not over, I want more content. I don’t accept. Let’s keep this going.”
Our lives in the pandemic are also formless, without the usual rhythms and punctuations. So we spend our time on the formless internet, scrolling through endless content. We whimper, “When will it end?” This is how it ends. Not with a bang. But with a whimper. Somehow both hollow and stuffed.